The Ongoing Trials of Barry Bonds

The Barry Bonds perjury trial will be getting underway just as the 2011 baseball season begins. This unfortunate piece of timing will bring attention back to Barry Bonds, who, perhaps more than any other player, has become a symbol of the steroid abuse which was widespread in baseball in recent years. Despite this trial being about perjury, not steroid abuse, Bonds remains an easy target for people upset about steroid use and its effect on the game. In addition to using steroids to help capture one of baseball’s most sacred records, Bonds’ use of steroids was so flagrant that even the most casual fan could see his changed body type. Bonds also was, according to most reports, a difficult even unpleasant man who never got along with the media. It should be noted that there is no crime in not getting along with the media, but his inability to come across as a nice and easy going man has cost Bonds dearly with fans and reporters.

Making Bonds the fall man for steroids abuse in baseball is, however, both unfair to Bonds and only makes it more difficult to ever find out the truth about steroids in baseball. It also further, and compared to his peers, unfairly, destroys the reputation of one of the greatest players ever to pick up a glove or a bat. From 1986-1998, when he was clearly not taking steroids, Bonds was an extraordinarily well rounded player and valuable. During this 13 year period he averaged more than 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases a season with over 100 walks, while winning eight gold gloves and three MVP awards. No other player in the history of the game sustained a combination of power, speed, patience and defense over a period of that many years. In those years, Bonds was a slender speedster with surprising power who evolved into a very good power hitter with surprising speed.

After 1998, and an injury limited 1999, Bonds turned into a one dimensional slugger with little speed, stealing only 54 bases between 2000 and 2007, limited range on defense, but extraordinary power. During those years, Bonds hit 317 home runs in 4072, plate appearances. Over those eight seasons fully 46% of his plate appearances led to home runs, strikeouts or walks, with an amazing 35% being either home runs or walks. Bonds went from being one of the most well rounded players in the history of the game to being a player who could simply hit home runs and walk. Even his fantastic batting averages including, .370 in 2002 and .362 in 2004, were based largely on home runs and low at bat totals due to walking so much.

Steroids did not make Bonds a great player, but they made him a different kind of great player. The early Bonds was great in an almost understated way. He was Willie Mays, or more accurately his own father, but with far better strike zone discipline than either. He did not make mockeries of records, but quietly, went about being the best player in baseball. He bothered people with his personality, but not with his greatness.

The story of Bonds deciding to take steroids after seeing the adulation showered on inferior and steroid abusing players Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 is not new, but if true, and few have disputed it, is still significant. Clearly, Bonds was faced with an ethical dilemma and made the wrong choice, but he made it a time when baseball was celebrating steroid effected accomplishments, if not steroid use itself. The decision was still wrong, but it was not indefensible. The steroid using Bonds went on to completely dominate the game ,not because he was the only player taking steroids, but in a climate when many, if not most, players were also taking steroids.

Bonds is far from unique in being a baseball star who took steroids. What is unusual about the Bonds case is that the evidence that he used steroids is so clear, excuse the pun, and that he may pay a consequence for it other than the haphazardly implemented sanction from Hall of Fame voters which others have faced. The current trial is not, of course, directly about steroid use in baseball, but that is how it is, to a large extent, being presented by the media and thus perceived by many people. Most other steroid users, or suspected steroid users, have encountered problems from Hall of Fame voters, minor punishments from Major League Baseball and far lesser degree of public shaming.

No matter how badly this trial goes for Bonds, how many former baseball players testify that Bonds was involved in steroid use or how much more damage this does to Bonds’ already extremely tarnished image, it will do nothing to address the largely irrevocable damage steroids have done to baseball Nor will it approach bringing any meaningful closure to this sad period in baseball history. The Bonds trial is a legal issue, but it is also another opportunity for baseball’s leadership, and even some fans and journalists to wrongly suggest that by punishing Bonds, baseball can move beyond the steroids scandal. Blaming Bonds is easy because of his personality, but also because of how dominant the steroid using Bonds was, but blaming Bonds is ultimately just another attempt by baseball to look away from steroid abuse, just as it did in 1998.